Reclaiming the night in rural Queensland

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Reclaiming the night in rural Queensland

ROCKHAMPTON — The Reclaim the Night march this year was a big success in this provincial central Queensland town.

The march was supported by 250 people, an increase of 100 from last year. The growing awareness of violent crimes against women is a result of much hard work and dedication of women in the town.

All of us who participated could sit back and congratulate ourselves on the smooth running of an enjoyable evening, but is that enough?

Over the last year, 199 rapes were reported to police in Rockhampton. As one in 10 rapes is reported, it can be concluded that an average of 30 women were raped each week.

Reclaim the Night raises several issues:

  • the shift of responsibility from perpetrators to women not to be raped

  • the myth that women are safe at home and not on the street

  • the reasons that women are not safe on the street

  • that authorities making these claims are often male

  • the systemic nature of violence and the unwillingness of communities to address causes

  • the relationship of power and aggression and communal inadequacy to sexual violence and violence generally

  • the tyranny of distance and isolation.

These issues need to be raised until they are no longer issues. Isolation, lack of funding and inadequate resources affect both the women experiencing sexual assault and domestic violence, and those who are attempting to support them.

In one town there are three women I have been told about who are in similar situations.

They are on different properties, have no vehicle, no phone. Their partners own guns which are left around the house in prominent positions, and when their partners are out of the house, the dogs are let off the chains to keep the women inside. The policeman (and it is a man) will not go there because he says the bloke might shoot him.

Outreach workers go there at their own peril. How does one even begin to address sexual assault and domestic violence when workers can access the community only once in three months and not even reach these women?

This scenario is not unusual in rural Queensland.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that there is no funding to provide regular support to outlying communities.

The area covered by a counsellor can be tens of thousands of square kilometres. In rural terms, it is not a particularly large area, but the resources that are not provided make the task that much harder in an area that never heard of women's rights the first time around!

For example, a woman working in an information and resource centre informed me that there was no sexual assault in their town. Up until the mid-1980s, women employed by the Rockhampton City Council were still sacked when they got engaged.

There are no female doctors outside of Rockhampton. There are no female specialists in central Queensland. Female doctors in Rockhampton paid for their own training in forensic examinations in order to become government medical officers for rape victims.

What is needed? Services must be adequately funded. A central Queensland sexual assault support service has one counsellor and a coordinator doing community development, education, training and outreach.

The counsellor has a waiting list of up to three weeks. Funding currently allows for four appointments a day, over which recent rape cases have priority. The booked appointments tend to be childhood sexual assault issues or women who were raped previously.

It is all well and good for a coordinator to go out to communities to raise awareness, but the service provision must be there to back up her work. Otherwise, it just means more women who have been sexually assaulted ringing for support to already overworked counsellors.

With proper funding, a sexual assault support service could and should provide: regular outreach counselling once a week to communities; an outreach indigenous counsellor; a full-time counsellor in Rockhampton; a full-time indigenous counsellor in Rockhampton.

This would make it possible to reach women with the most urgent need and recent sexual abuse cases. It would not be able to achieve anything more than that — not ongoing support, not refuge provision, not education, not training for either support workers or women at risk.

Provision of these services would at best barely catch up to the problem of sexual abuse in central Queensland following the years of neglect and withdrawal of resources.

The danger of lobbying for counsellors to be employed within the smaller communities is that workers are out there on their own with no support. Moreover, these sole workers tend not to have the skills and knowledge to deal with the issues they are presented with.

If a position is funded, it is generally sponsored by a church organisation. Churches run regional central Queensland, and workers are not allowed to speak out. They cannot lobby against policy or funding issues.

This cycle perpetuates the erosion of the feminist analysis of sexual violence. The feminist framework has not been recognised by Queensland Health and has been removed as a minimum standard for service provision.

To add insult to injury, the draft minimum standards document for funding from Queensland Health for sexual assault services does not recognise freedom from sexual violence as an achievable goal.

The advantage of working from a regional centre is that the infrastructure and worker support are already in place. Support work in regional and rural areas is dangerous work. It is literally possible to be killed or threatened with violence, including sexual violence.

Sexual violence against women is a community issue, and the community need to take both responsibility for it and action. This includes, at individual and collective levels, men taking responsibility for rape and for their attitudes towards women, and challenging other men who are not doing so.

The reality of the social environment must be considered. Women become increasingly vulnerable to abuse in societies with increasing levels of poverty and are the first to be economically "rationalised".

Freedom from sexual violence is a fundamental human right. All people committed to a better world need to have this goal incorporated in their campaign.

Rockhampton men marched in Reclaim the Night this year. Women spoke, women organised, women performed and celebrated. Men attended and marched in support of women against sexual violence.

Sexual violence is systemic. Sexual violence is perpetuated through our society's values, and is inherent within its systems and structures.

Women's services are being defunded all around the country. Women are overwhelmingly found in temporary or casual work. Child-care is harder to receive, and expensive. It is becoming more difficult for women to work or study. Abortion rights have been restricted further.

You cannot be complacent! As Gandhi stated, the night that a woman can walk down a street safely is the night that society has matured.

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